Magazine article Information Today

ICIJ: The World's Biggest Muckraker

Magazine article Information Today

ICIJ: The World's Biggest Muckraker

Article excerpt

One of the biggest news stories of 2016 was the release of the Panama Papers. They revealed a vast worldwide network of tax evasion and corruption, engineered by a mysterious law firm that specialized in setting up obscure financial entities for the rich and powerful. The Panama Papers were an international scandal, leading to dozens of arrests, resignations, and firings as well as hundreds of criminal investigations.

The Panama Papers case involved hundreds of journalists in dozens of countries who analyzed a vast trove of data using the latest technologies of data journalism. The giant project was managed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ;, a Washington, D.C.-based organization with the pedigree, the track record, and the scale to manage what it terms "the biggest investigation in journalism history."

Investigative Journalism on a Global Scale

ICIJ was established in 1997 as part of the Center for Public Integrity, an investigative journalism organization (see sidebar). The center recognized that as corruption and crime were increasingly globalized, its investigations required cooperation from journalists around the world. In 2017, ICIJ was spun off as a separate nonprofit organization. It is supported by foundations and individual donors.

With a mission to focus on "issues that do not stop at national frontiers: cross-border crime, corruption, and the accountability of power," ICIJ has conducted dozens of large-scale investigations into the global crime scene. It's tackled military and industrial corruption, environmental degradation, and exploitation in developing nations by the World Bank and Australian mining companies. It's done several projects on money laundering and tax evasion.

Journalism's Biggest Investigation

The Panama Papers case, however, was the biggest thing that had ever come along for ICIJ. The papers are an immense collection of financial records from the Mossack Fonseca law firm, headquartered in Panama (hence the name), with dozens of branches worldwide. The papers were obtained from a still-unknown whistleblower, whose motive was to reveal the corrosive effects of income inequality. (The source issued a manifesto on the leak--"The Revolution Will Be Digitized"--a compelling diatribe on the destructive corruption of the world's elites.) The papers were given to a German newspaper, the Suddeutsche Zeitung, which in turn enlisted ICIJ to manage the enormous task of going through them.

The yearlong project involved more than 370 journalists and 100 news organizations across 70-plus countries. There were 11.5 million documents revealing information on more than 214,000 offshore entities. ICIJ released the first Panama Papers report in April 2016 and has since followed up with dozens of reports on individual aspects of the investigation and its outcomes.

With tremors from the Panama Papers still being felt, in November 2017, ICIJ announced the startling results of a second mega-investigation: the Paradise Papers. It was similar in type and scope to its predecessor. These papers (allegedly named for the balmy locations of many offshore entities) contained financial records from a law firm and an associated financial company. The documents were given by an ionknown leaker to the Suddeutsche Zeitung, which again turned to ICIJ. Almost 400 reporters and 95 media partners analyzed 13.4 million documents that demonstrated an intricate maze of tax havens and tax avoidance schemes by hundreds of business and political figures. …

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